A new podcast: Dawkins on how to write popular science

July 4, 2021 • 12:30 pm

This morning I was interviewed by Iona Italia on her “Two for Tea” podcast, designed to enlighten listeners as well as to support Areo Magazine, of which Iona is Editor-in-Chief. The podcast has featured guests with expertise on science, religion, humanism, philosophy, freedom of speech, and so on—much like the contents of Areo—and has been running for three years.

My interview should be out in a few weeks, but the last half of it will be for subscribers only. You can become a patron here; the $1/month memberships are sold out, so your minimum contribution is $5 a month, though I’m told that if you’re poor you can get a one-time $1 link. And, at any rate, the first half is free. I’ll post a link when it’s up.

While looking at who’s been interviewed, I saw that the latest episode (second link below), features Richard Dawkins, talking mostly about the themes of his new book on science writing (first link below). It’s Richard’s version of Pinker’s A Sense of Style, I guess, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to say on his philosophy of writing popular science. Some of his books, like The Blind Watchmaker, represent, to me, a near-perfect fusion of lyricism and science. And although I can’t aspire to write anywhere near as well as he, he’s been a role model of both clear and moving science exposition. You can order the book from Amazon by clicking on the link below.

I listened to the free 24 minutes of the podcast, and if you’re already very familiar with Dawkins you may not learn much that is new, but it’s a good way to spend an hour (or half hour) on a lazy Fourth of July. Here are the timestamps for Dawkins podcast, which unfortunately (if you don’t pay) stops right before the “literature and poetry” bit, which I’d much want to hear. I’d also like to know what his favorite book is.

At any rate, if you click on the screenshot below, you’ll go to the page where you can hear the first 24 minutes.


4:24 Why more non-scientists should take pleasure in science writing
6:15 Why it is important for scientists to write clearly
14:43 Continuously updated virtual reality
16:41 The genetic book of the dead
20:17 The extended phenotype
25:12 Literature and poetry
28:06 Misconceptions of the gene’s eye view
33:21 Misinterpretations of evolutionary biology and of Dawkins’ own work in particular
35:56 Defying our genes
36:16 Anti-Darwinian ethics
37:28 Threats to the understanding of science
39:20 Dawkins’ gift for satire
44:37 Dawkins’ own favourite work

While we’re at it, do note your favorite Dawkins book. If you’re into pure science, you might like The Selfish Gene or The Extended Phenotype, while if you favor popular science that’s a bit easier to read, you might like The Blind Watchmaker or Climbing Mount Improbable.


22 thoughts on “A new podcast: Dawkins on how to write popular science

  1. I love pretty much everything Dawkins has written, but I think “The Blind Watchmaker” is still the best available popular exposition of evolutionary theory, and “Selfish Gene” makes the strongest case for the gene-centric way of looking at evolution.

  2. The Selfish Gene informed my understanding of population genetics in a positive way. Still does.

    1. Seriously?! I still only have a “delivery date pending”. I am at the mercy of the evil empire, since out here in the sticks t’ain’t no damn librul book stores.

      1. On a Sunday, no less! And I was notified of a something like $1.28 refund from amazon.ca a few days ago because the price had decreased since my pre-order. Maybe there IS a god?. Naaaaaaaaw. What sticks do you live in?

        1. Nowheresville, Missouri, where tRumpers outnumber democrats 5-1, where Josh horseshit Hawley is still king, Eric the Grifter Greitens is waiting to be our next senator and the good gawd-fearin’, gub’ment hating’ citizens have more guns than teeth.

          1. And, I’m embarrassed to say, Josh horseshit Hawley attended my alma mater, and History Prof David Kennedy said that Josh had been one of his smartest students and what the hell happened to him!!.?

  3. My favorite is “The Ancestor’s Tale”. Highly readable and full of interesting biology.

    1. I offer a second for Ancestor’s tale, a fascinating perspective that casts evolutionary processes in reverse motion.

  4. Podcast enjoyed. I can’t say which of Richard’s books are my favorite, since I’ve read just about all of them over some 30 years. Recollections are too dim to recall, and that is my loss.

  5. I went so far as to describe Dawkins’ computer game in “The Blind Watchmaker” in a general Genetics
    class, as an illustration of the power of selection. [However, it is an ambiguous illustration, because it is
    teleological—strings are selected, in each computer “generation”, for resemblance to a target sequence.] For general reading, I particularly liked the anthology of his essays in “Science in the Soul”, for its variety and also possibly because of its more unbuttoned style.

    1. Would it be more realistic to have two ‘competitors’ choosing the computer-generated designs in turn? One picks a design that looks most like themself from a previous turn, as a ‘mate’, then a ‘predator’ has a turn picking and eliminating the designs that look least like that design, as ‘prey’?

  6. It’s hard to go past The Ancestor’s Tale for my mind. The scope of evolutionary information in it along with the way it was organised is just brilliant.

  7. Agreed with those above who mentioned The Ancestor’s Tale. (Or is it Ancestors’ ?)
    But The Selfish Gene blew my mind back in 19 seventy whatever.

  8. I “discovered” Richard Dawkins and ‘The Selfish Gene’ back in the days when I would purchase a book by calculating how many pages a dollar would get me. I spent a lot of time on buses and trams, and seemingly just as much time waiting for the bus or tram to arrive, so reading as entertainment was a great time-killer.

    The care and clarity he takes with his metaphors makes it very easy to grasp to grasp the underlying scientific concepts . Well, easy unless you were a philospher named Mary Midgley, who criticized Dawkins by (deliberately?) misconstruing his metaphors as his facts. A deliciously entertaining rebuttal to her criticisms can be found here You can read the abstract and download the full PDF.

    Dawkin’s illustrates the concept of a common ancestor with another metaphor I find quite moving –

    Events are sometimes organized at which thousands of people hold hands and form a human chain, say from coast to coast in the US, in aid of some cause or charity. Let us imagine setting one up along the equator, across the width of our ‘home continent’ Africa. It is a special kind of chain, involving parents and children, and we have to play tricks with time in order to imagine it. You stand on the shore of the Indian Ocean in southern Somalia, facing north, and in your left hand you hold the right hand of your mother. In turn she holds the hand of her mother, your grandmother. Your grandmother holds her mother’s hand, and so on. The chain wends its way up the beach, into the arid scrubland and westwards towards the Kenya border.

    How far do we have to go until we reach our common ancestor with the chimpanzees? It is a surprisingly short way. Allowing one yard per person, we arrive at the ancestor we share with chimpanzees in under 300 miles. We have hardly started to cross the continent; we are still not half way to the Great Rift Valley. The ancestor is standing well to the east of Mount Kenya, and holding in her hand an entire chain of her lineal descendents, culminating in you standing on the Somali beach…

    The daughter that she is holding by her right hand is the one from whom we are descended. Now the arch-ancestress turns eastward to face the coast, and with her left hand grasps her other daughter, the one from whom the chimpanzees are descended (or son, of course). The two sisters are facing one another, and each holding their mother by the hand. Now the second daughter, the chimpanzee ancestress, holds her daughter’s hand, and a new chain is formed, proceeding backwards towards the coast. First cousin faces first cousin, second cousin faces second cousin, and so on. By the time the double-back chain has reached the coast again, it consists of modern chimpanzees. You are face to face with your chimpanzee cousin, and you are joined to her by an unbroken chain of mothers holding hands with daughters.

    If you walked up the line like an inspecting general – past Homo erectus, Homo habilis, perhaps Australopithecus afarensis – and down again the other side, you would nowhere find any sharp discontinuity. Daughters would resemble their mothers just as much (or as little) as they always do. Mothers would love daughters, and feel affinity with them, just as they always do. And this hand-in-hand continuum, joining us seamlessly to chimpanzees, is so short that it barely makes it past the hinterland of Africa, the mother continent.

    – Richard Dawkins in New Scientist, 5 June 1993

  9. Hello Jerry! Thank you so much for sharing this. I have made the Dawkins episode fully public on soundcloud, so people can listen to it as a taster for what the podcast is like and I’ve expanded the number of available $1 a month subscriptions, at your suggestion. The full version is here:


    To subscribe to the podcast: https://www.patreon.com/twofortea

  10. I too would very much would want to have known who his favorite authors are both in literature and in poetry. I can only try to hazard a guess based on what I have read by Dawkins. For example, he very much favors the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament from a literary point of view, the book that begins with “Vanity of vanities …. All things are vanity!” and it’s downward from there! I would be especially interested to know what poets he most likes – but if I had to guess, I would say maybe Keats (who died at 26), Arnold, Browning, from the 19th century; maybe Frost, Hardy, from the first half of 20th century. I probably say this because Keats has this gorgeous exuberance of language which I think he might like, but Arnold, Frost and Hardy, while a bit less exuberant, also matured in a more sober assessment of it all which would be quite in line with the feelings and sentiments of The Book of Ecclesiastes! If someone chances to hear the rest of the interview I should be grateful to know if my guess is at all correct!

  11. Dawkins is in fine form on this. Is this “genetic book of the dead” a new idea of his as suggested that it is a forthcoming title? Brilliant Dawkins style – and the discussion is excellent here.

    Oh but if basic research papers ever would express ideas in prose as Dawkins proposes, contrasted to the utilitarian, cerebral, or data dump form they take – as they are written by committee, rather than one “author” – he is absolutely correct of course, it would promote the science in doing so. There is the question of how this would be peer reviewed, if it were a “story”.

  12. In the spirit of seeing a subject from a rival point of view see ‘Dawk Humour’ in Private Eye 1548 Literary Review as an example of how Richard is seen by the majority of journalists in Blighty. For sheer petulant, frothing hatred, it could hardly by bettered. I read The Selfish Gene when it came out as a paperback in 1976/7 and have relished all his others as they’ve appeared, not only because every one is a masterpiece of explanation for non scientists like me, but because they rile up fatuous journalist’s especially those corrupted in their formative years by any flavour of Religion

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